The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life's Perfection
by Michael A. Singer
"A lone voice in the modern wilderness calling for surrender instead of striving, Singer shows how surrendering to life does not mean giving up our dreams." --Shawn Achor, happiness researcher and NYTimes bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage
“Only the rarest of books has the power to clearly explain the difference between a human being and a human doing, and why that distinction is so important. The Surrender Experiment is such a book. Inspiring, authentic, and intensely compelling.” –Dean Radin, author of The Conscious Universe
“Michael Singer writes a beautiful, touching memoir on the amazing power of surrender in his life. With courage, spunk, and thoughtfulness, he has reached beyond the status quo to dare to trust life and surrender to its ultimate perfection.” --Judith Orloff MD, author, The Ecstasy of Surrender
“With his hallmark precision and clarity Michael Singer reveals in his latest masterpiece, The Surrender Experiment, how everyday life, doing business in the world and spiritual practice can be synchronized to carry us into the heart of life's unimaginable perfection. This is exactly the kind of practical mastery needed for a world in chaos.” --Jack Canfield, Coauthor of The Success Principles and the Chicken Soup for the Soul® series
--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
1. Not with a Shout—But with a Whisper
My given name is Michael Alan Singer. From as far back as I can remember, everyone has called me Mickey. I was born May 6, 1947, and lived a fairly ordinary life until the winter of 1970. Then something happened to me that was so profound that it forever changed the direction of my life.
Life-changing events can be very dramatic and, by their very nature, disruptive. Your whole being is headed in one direction physically, emotionally, and mentally; and that direction has all the momentum of your past and all the dreams of your future. Then suddenly, there’s a major earthquake, a terrible sickness, or a chance encounter that totally sweeps you off your feet. If the event is powerful enough to change the focus of your heart and mind, the rest of your life will change in due course. You are literally not the same person on both sides of a truly life-changing event. Your interests change, your goals change, in fact, the underlying purpose of your life changes. It usually takes a very powerful event to turn your head around so far that you never look back.
But not always.
In the winter of 1970, no such event happened to me. What happened was so subtle, so faint, that it could easily have passed by without being noticed. It was not with a shout but with a whisper that my life was thrown into utter turmoil and transformation. It has been more than forty years now since that life-changing moment, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
I was sitting on the living room couch in my home in Gainesville, Florida. I was twenty-two years old and married at the time to a beautiful soul named Shelly. We were both students at the University of Florida where I was doing my graduate work in economics. I was a very astute student, and I was being groomed by the chairman of the economics department to become a college professor.
Shelly had a brother, Ronnie, who was a very successful attorney in Chicago. Ronnie and I became close friends even though we were from totally different worlds. He was a powerful, wealth-driven, big-city attorney, and I was a ’60s-groomed, college-intellectual hippie. It is worth mentioning just how analytically oriented I was at the time. I had never even taken a philosophy, psychology, or religion course while in college. My electives at school were symbolic logic, advanced calculus, and theoretical statistics. This makes what happened to me all the more amazing.
Ronnie would come down once in a while to visit, and we would often just hang out together. As it turns out, Ronnie was sitting on that couch with me on that fateful day in 1970. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but there had been a lull in our leisurely conversation. I noticed I was uncomfortable with the silence and found myself thinking of what to say next. I had been in similar situations many times before, but something was quite different about this experience. Instead of simply being uncomfortable and trying to find something to say, I noticed that I was uncomfortable and trying to find something to say. For the first time in my life, my mind and emotions were something I was watching instead of being.
I know that it is difficult to put into words, but there was a complete sense of separation between my anxious mind, which was spewing out possible topics to talk about, and me, the one who was simply aware that my mind was doing this. It was like I was suddenly able to remain above my mind and quietly watch the thoughts being created. Believe it or not, that subtle shift in my seat of awareness became a tornado that rearranged my entire life.
For a few moments, I just sat there inwardly watching myself try to “fix” the awkward silence. But I was not the one trying to fix it; I was the one quietly watching the activity of my mind trying to fix it. At first there were only a few degrees of separation between me and what I was watching. But every second the separation seemed to become greater and greater. I was not doing anything to cause this shift. I was just there noticing that my sense of me no longer included the neurotic thought patterns that were passing in front of me.
This entire process of “becoming aware” was practically instantaneous. It was like when you stare at one of those posters that has a hidden picture inside. At first it appears to be just a circle with line patterns. Then, suddenly, you see an entire 3-D image emerge from what originally looked like chaos. Once you see it, you can’t imagine how you hadn’t seen it before. It was right there! Such was the shift that happened inside of me. It was so obvious—I was in there watching my thoughts and emotions. I had always been in there watching, but I had been too unaware to notice. It was as though I had been so involved in their details that I never saw them as just thoughts and emotions.
Within seconds, what previously seemed like important solutions for how to break the uncomfortable silence was now sounding like a neurotic voice talking inside my head. I watched as that voice tried out things to say:
The weather’s been awesome, hasn’t it?
Did you hear what Nixon did the other day?
Do you want to get something to eat?
When I finally did open my mouth to say something, what I said was:
“Have you ever noticed that there’s this voice talking inside your head?”
Ronnie looked at me a little weird, and then a spark lit in his eyes. He said, “Yes, I see what you’re talking about—mine never shuts up!” I distinctly remember making a joke out of it by asking him what it would be like if he heard someone else’s voice talking in there. We laughed, and life went on.
But not my life. My life didn’t just “go on.” In my life, nothing would ever be the same again. I didn’t have to try to maintain this awareness. It was who I was now. I was the being who was watching the incessant flow of thoughts pass through the mind. From the same seat of awareness, I watched the ever-shifting current of emotions pass through the heart. When I showered, I saw what that voice had to say while I was supposed to be washing my body. If I was talking to someone, I watched as that voice figured out what to say next—instead of listening to what the other person was saying. If I went to class, I watched my mind play the game of trying to think ahead of the professor to see if it could figure out where he was going with the lecture. Needless to say, it did not take long before this newly found voice inside my head really started to annoy me. It was like sitting next to someone in a movie theater who never, ever stops talking.
As I observed that voice, something deep inside my being just wanted it to shut up. What would it be like if it stopped? I began to long for silence inside. Within days of that first experience, my life’s patterns began to change. When friends came over to socialize, I no longer enjoyed the scene. I wanted to quiet my mind, and social activities didn’t help. I began to excuse myself and go out to the woods near our house. I would sit down on the ground amid the trees and tell that voice to shut up. Of course, it didn’t work. Nothing seemed to work. I found that I could change the topic it talked about, but I could not get it to just stop talking for any length of time. My yearning for inner silence became a passion. I knew what it was like to watch the voice. What I didn’t know is what it would be like if the voice totally stopped. And what I never could have imagined was the life-changing journey on which I was about to embark.
2. Getting to Know Me
Even in my youth, I loved to figure out how things worked. So it was inevitable that my analytical mind would become fascinated by trying to understand my relationship to the voice inside my head. Before I could enjoy this intellectual fascination, however, I had to get over the fact that the personal mind was driving me crazy. Every time I saw something, that voice made some comment about it: I like it . . .; I don’t like it . . .; I’m not comfortable with this . . .; This reminds me of . . . As I became more and more accustomed to watching all this, a few questions naturally arose. First, why is this voice talking all the time? If I see something, I’m instantly aware of seeing it. Why does the voice have to tell me that I see it and how I feel about it?
Here comes Mary. I don’t feel like seeing her today. I hope she doesn’t see me.
I know what I see and I know what I feel. After all, I’m the one in here seeing and feeling. Why does it have to get vocalized in my mind?
Another question that arose was who am I who keeps noticing all this mental activity? Who am I who can just watch thoughts come up with a complete sense of detachment?
I now had two driving forces awaken inside regarding this newly found voice in my head. One was the desire to shut it up and the other was the pure fascination and yearning to understand what that voice was and where it came from.
I mentioned that prior to this inner awakening, my life was pretty ordinary. I only say that in comparison to what my life became. I became a driven human being. I wanted to know about the voice I had discovered, and I wanted to know who I was—the one inside experiencing all of this. I began to spend hours on end in the graduate school library. But I was not in the economics section; I was in the psychology section. There was no way that others had not noticed this voice talking inside. It was so prevalent that you couldn’t miss it. I scanned through Freud trying to find the answers to my questions. I read book after book, but I found no direct reference to the voice talking inside—not to mention any reference to the one who is aware that the voice is talking.
In those days, I would talk about the voice to anyone who would listen. They all must have thought I was crazy. I remember one encounter with my very reserved, highly cultured Spanish professor. I ran into him one day between classes and excitedly told him that I had come to understand what it meant to be fluent in a language. I explained to him that there was this voice inside your head that talks to you about virtually everything—what you like and dislike, what you’re supposed to be doing right now, and what you’ve done wrong in the past. If that inner voice could speak in Spanish and you immediately understood what it was saying, then you were fluent in Spanish. If, however, the Spanish words made no sense to you until you did the mental work of translating them so that the voice would repeat them in English, then you were not fluent in Spanish. It made perfect sense—to me. I told him that if I were majoring in language studies, I would do my doctoral dissertation on that premise. Needless to say, my Spanish professor gave me a very odd look, said something very polite, and went on his way.
I didn’t care what he thought. I was on an exploration, a journey of learning beyond anything I could have imagined. Every day I was learning so much about myself. I couldn’t believe the amount of self-consciousness and fear being expressed through that voice. It was so obvious that the person I was watching inside cared a great deal about what people thought of him. This was especially true of people I knew well. The voice told me what to say and what not to say. It complained incessantly when something was not the way it wanted. If a conversation with a friend ended with the slightest discord or disagreement, the conversation would keep going on inside my head. I would watch the voice wishfully imagine how the conversation could have ended on a different note. I could see how much fear of rejection and nonacceptance were being expressed through that mental dialogue. It was overwhelming at times, but I never lost the perspective of watching a voice talking inside. It was obvious it wasn’t me; it was something I was watching.
Imagine if you woke up one day and a cacophony of noise was all around you. You wanted it to stop, but you had no idea how to stop it. That is the effect the voice was having on me. One thing was perfectly clear: that voice had always talked before. But I had been so lost in it that I never noticed it as separate from me. It was like a fish not knowing it is in water until it gets out. One leap into the air and the fish instantly realizes, “There’s a body of water down there, and that is where I’ve always been. But now I see that I can get out.”
I didn’t like the voice of the mind talking all the time. It was just like an irritating noise that I really wanted to stop. But it didn’t. For now I was stuck with it. As it turns out, however, I had not yet begun to fight.
3. The Pillars of Zen
Months went by and I was still on my own with my inner exploration. Little did I know that help was about to arrive unexpectedly.
I had a classmate in my doctoral program named Mark Waldman. He was a bright young man and an avid reader on a broad range of subjects. Like everyone else, Mark had heard me talking about my interest in the voice. One day he brought me a book he thought might help. The book was entitled Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau.
I knew absolutely nothing about Zen Buddhism. I was an intellectual who didn’t give religious matters a second thought. I was brought up Jewish, but not very much so. By the time I reached college, religion played no part in my life. If you had asked me if I was an atheist, I probably would have given you a blank stare. I had never even thought about it.
I started leafing through the pages of the book on Zen, and within minutes it became evident: this book was about that voice. My heart practically stopped. I had trouble breathing. This book was clearly about how to stop that voice from talking. Passage after passage spoke about quieting the mind. It used terms like the True Self behind the mind. There was no doubt that I had found what I’d been looking for. I knew there had to be others who had gained the perspective of watching that voice of the mind instead of identifying with it. Not only was there an entire legacy of knowledge spanning thousands of years that dealt with the voice, but this book clearly discussed “getting out.” It talked about freeing yourself from the hold of the mind. It talked about going beyond.
Needless to say, I was in awe. I felt a reverence for this book that I had never felt for anything in my life. I had been forced to read and study so many books in school. I now had in my hands a book that answered some real questions for me, like who am I that watches that voice talk. These were questions that I passionately wanted to know the answers to. Truth is, it was way beyond want. I needed to know these answers—that voice was driving me crazy!
What Three Pillars of Zen had to say was very clear and unequivocal. It said to stop reading, talking, and thinking about your mind, and just do the work necessary to quiet it down. The required work was equally unambiguous—meditate.
Before I even knew about meditation, I had tried sitting alone in order to make the voice stop talking. But that had never worked for me. With this book, I was presented a tried-and-true method that had worked for thousands of others. Simply sit down in a quiet spot, watch your breath go in and out, and mentally repeat the sound Mu. That’s it. Now do that for an ever-increasing length of time each day. In Zen, the real work was generally done in a group setting called a sessin. In traditional settings, a trained person would walk around with a kyosaku stick. If you started to sleep or lost focus in another manner, you would get a smack on your shoulders with the stick. Zen was strict; there was no playing around. This form of Zen was serious work.
I didn’t have a group or a teacher. All I had was the book and a very sincere yearning to see if these practices would take me where I wanted to go. So I started to do Zen meditation on my own. At least it was my best understanding of what Zen meditation is. At first I sat for fifteen or twenty minutes each day. Within a week I built that to half an hour, twice a day. There were no fireworks or deep experiences. But concentrating on my breath and the mantra was definitely diverting my awareness from the incessant chatter of the voice. If I made the mental voice say Mu, it couldn’t say all the crazy personal things it usually said. I quickly began to like the practice. I looked forward to the times I had put aside during the day for meditation.
I was no more than a few weeks into my experiment with Zen meditation when Shelly and I decided to go on a camping trip. We were joined by four friends, and together we drove our vans into Ocala National Forest for the weekend. I had a VW camper, so weekend trips were an easy affair. But this trip wouldn’t turn out to be just another camping trip—this trip was destined to have a profound impact on the rest of my life.
We found a secluded spot in the woods that opened up to a pristine wetland area. Once we situated our vans, we were overcome by the quiet and beauty of the place. It dawned on me that this would be a good place to do some meditation. I was just a novice, but I was very serious about doing the practices and finding out what it would be like if the voice actually stopped. I asked Shelly and our friends if I could spend some time by myself. No one objected, so I meandered down by the grassy lake and found a nice spot to sit. The whole notion of meditating was so meaningful to me that from the start it was like a sacred experience. I picked a tree to sit under, just like the Buddha. Then, very dramatically, I told myself, I’m not getting up until I’ve reached enlightenment.
What happened under that tree that day was so powerful that even now my body shivers and my eyes begin to tear just to think about it.
About the Author
MICHAEL A. SINGER still lives in the woods where his great experiment began and where it continues. He is the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller The Untethered Soul. Visit him at www.untetheredsoul.com.
TEMPLE OF THE UNIVERSE